Such was the deadening effect of English lessons in school that you may be tempted to skip out immediately if I tell you that this is based on one of Addison’s essays for the Spectator. He announced one day that although his daily paper had been sold every day at three half-pence the time had come when he had to raise the price to two pence. Readers’ letters flooded in. No longer would they prop his paper beside their breakfast cup of coffee. One reader said he never thought he’d dislike any passage in the Spectator, but that there were ‘two Words in every one of them which he could heartily wish left out, viz. Price Two-Pence.’
Desperately did Addison rejoin that the extra expense (a halfpenny!) could be easily met if ‘a Lady sacrifice but a single Riband’ or ‘a Family burn but a Candle a night less than the usual Number’ – but no, readers choked over breakfast at the thought of paying more. Is this not a familiar scene to modern publishers? An e-book is cheaper, readers cry: why should I buy an ink-on-paper book? Our daily newspapers are facing down the same attack as did Addison – too expensive, I’ll do without.
At the moment, most of us can read our papers online, though the Times perhaps may persuade us we have to pay for it. Meanwhile we can read any amount of journalism online – though of what quality? It’s easy for someone like me to knock out a few hundred words of commentary, but who’s going to pay me to conduct a rigorous piece of journalistic scrutiny? Who’s going to pay me to go out, dig deep, and ferret for the news? Not you, dear online reader. And will you pay me – pay real money – to read my books online? I hope so – being the many hopeful writers who imagine that when the e-dust settles, some form of revenue will accrue. But will it?
Addison’s answer was to accept that he would indeed lose a section of his daily readership, but that he could offer a cheaper substitute: collected editions in bound volumes, sold more cheaply than copies bought every day. The first four bound volumes were already printed, he declared, and ‘they would be a very proper Present to be made to Persons at Christenings, Marriages, Visiting-Days, and the like joyful Solemnities, as several other Books are frequently given at Funerals.’ Indeed, his printer had suggested, ‘a Salver of Spectators would be as acceptable an Entertainment to the Ladies as a Salver of Sweetmeats.’
This did the Spectator move with the times – and those combined volumes did indeed sell very well. You can find them still in second-hand bookshops, where you’d have the devil of a job to find a copy of an actual daily edition. So is this the answer, I wonder, for all we bloggists – to combine our ramblings (or the best of them) into single volumes which you can buy ‘half a Year behind-hand’? Would you buy a copy? No, I didn’t think you would.
But it worked for Addison. Don’t you remember ploughing through his work at school?